Since Bush announced the end of the war on 1 May more than 140 US soldiers have died. Of these, 66 have been killed by Iraqi resistance attacks.
Perhaps more ominous, US troop deaths since then have surpassed the number of US soldiers killed during the actual invasion and military campaign.
However, while the most recent opinion polls indicate growing concerns over mounting casualties, public support for the United States-led operation remains strong.
According to one major poll, 52% described the number of US fatalities as “unacceptable” … an increase of eights points in three weeks.
Yet in the same poll, ran by the Washington Post-ABC News, only 26% said the level of casualties was more than they expected, and seven in 10 said the US military should maintain its presence in Iraq, even if it means the loss of more troops.
Despite their dissatisfaction over the current state of security in Iraq, most people in the US will continue to back the military campaign as long as the impetus for being there seems worthy and attainable, said Dr Stephen Kull at the Program on International Policy Attitudes, a Washington think tank.
“There’s a tendency to think of casualties as having a direct relationship on support,” he said. “The pattern we’ve seen in the past is that when we have casualties, the public sits up and asks some questions.”
Four questions to be specific: Are the military goals valid, are they achievable, are they legitimate and is there consensus among the elite political establishment for the administration’s plan? The impact of ongoing US casualties on public support hinges on the answers to these issues, Kull said.
“Right now, the answer to the question of whether the goal is valid is positive, because a majority think that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction at the beginning of the war and did have connections to al-Qaida,” he said. “But that support is eroding.”
“If all of these things slipped below a majority, then the casualties could become a problem,” he added.
Occupation troop actions add to
A large part of the reason why most people in the US still view the country’s presence in Iraq as legitimate is the general perception that the Iraqi people themselves support the occupation, he said.
Roughly, three-quarters of the public believe the Iraqis want the US troops to remain in their country until the situation is stabilised, according to the latest poll conducted by Kull.
But if the voices within Iraq calling for an end to the US military occupation grow louder and more frequent, “then the legitimacy of the occupation comes into question,” he said. This observation was echoed by Jay Farrar, a public policy analyst at the Centre for Strategic International Studies in Washington.
“The broad number of Iraqi people support Saddam Hussein having been removed … if and when their dissatisfaction comes back and large numbers of Iraqis start to turn on the US, that could have a big impact on US public opinion,” Farrar said.
The recent destruction of the United Nations headquarters in Baghdad made an already delicate situation worse, Kull said.
“I think it will weaken the idea that the operation is legitimate and can be legitimate in the eyes of the Iraqi people,” he said.
The UN bombing illustrated a scenario the Bush administration has reason to fear. A similar attack on US military facilities, in which dozens of troops are killed in a single instance, could be the spark that ignites a more widespread public backlash at home, Farrar said.
He noted that in the early 1980s, there were several smaller attacks on US forces in Beirut, but it was not until a massive suicide bombing killed 241 marines in a barracks in 1983, that former President Ronald Reagan decided to pull the US military out of Lebanon.
“The numbers [of casualties] have more to do with the circumstances in which they take place,” Farrar said.
That most remain willing to accept the near daily loss of life in Iraq, is due in no small part to the fact that no major US politician has called for the withdrawal of troops, he said.
“Right now, there’s nobody stepping forward and saying ‘here’s how we can get out’. If that happened, things could start to change”
“Right now, there’s nobody stepping forward and saying ‘here’s how we can get out,’” he said. “If that happened, things could start to change.”
While there has been heavy scrutiny of the Bush administration’s decision to invade Iraq in the first place, particularly by the likes of Howard Dean and other Democratic candidates running for president, none of them has suggested it would be in the best interests of the US to pull the troops from the region.
Without a clearly defined and well-reasoned exit strategy, it appears unlikely that the US public will withdraw their support in any significant numbers.
Such attitudes provide little comfort to the thousands of families in the US who go to bed each night wondering if their sons and daughters are still alive, said Charles Richardson, the founder of Military Families Speak Out, an organisation comprising over 600 military families that oppose the occupation in Iraq.
Although the group was against the Iraq operation from day one, Richardson said there is a mixture of opinions among the families.
“We have people who originally supported the war and now feel that they were used,” he said. “The administration told them there were reasons for war that were fabrications.”
“We have people who originally supported the war and now feel that they were used”
Charles Richardson, founder of Military Families Speak Out
Richardson’s 25-year-old son, Joe, recently returned home from Iraq after serving as an Arab language radio recon commando in the US Marine Corps.
However, he has spoken with thousands of families whose loved ones are still caught in the crossfire of a small – but deadly – guerrilla resistance. The waiting, they say, is the hardest part.
“The anxiety level is very high,” he said. “Every time the phone rings or there’s a knock on the door they think it might be people bringing bad news about their loved ones. It never goes away.”
That knock on the door came early for the family of Baltimore native Kendall D Waters-Bey, a Marine sergeant who was one of the first US casualties in the war. His sister, Michelle Waters, told the Baltimore Sun that the news of his death was devastating.
“It’s all for nothing, that war could have been prevented,” she said. “Now, we’re out of a brother. [President] Bush is not out of a brother. We are.”
Meanwhile, the Pentagon has tried to paint the US Iraq occupation as successful despite rising US casualty figures and increased Iraqi resistance attacks.
“There’s a perception of chaos, and that we’re taking large casualties, but most parts of the country are stable,” said a Defence Department (DOD) official who asked not to be identified.
Since the invasion began on 19 March, more than 280 US soldiers have been killed, 180 due to “enemy fire”.Yet, considering the scope of the operation and the size of the country, those numbers are relatively small, the DOD official said.
Declining support levels may
“It’s no comfort at all that casualties have been low … but you also have to look at it as, yes, we’ve been losing service members since 1 May and that’s a sad fact, but we’ve been conducting thousands of raids,” he said.
Regardless of the duration of the US military occupation of Iraq, the official said there is no telling how long that could be, the Pentagon is confident that it will retain the overall support of people.
“I think they’re prepared for the sacrifice,” the official said.
While a recent CBS News poll shows a significant drop in approval for President Bush’s handling of the Iraq situation, the country is evenly divided over whether the results of the invasion have been worth the costs, the poll said.
Many people who opposed the US invasion in Iraq, realise that it could be disastrous to pull the plug on the operation before a successful democratic transition has been made, said Walter Shapiro, a political columnist for USA Today. But they still want US soldiers out of harm’s way as soon as possible, he said.
“What I do think [the poll numbers] mean is that many people, myself included, who were sceptical of this war, think Iraq would be better off if our soldiers were home for the holidays,” he said.